Recognizing its relevance in the global marketplace, the small South American country of Uruguay has placed increasing emphasis on improving the abilities of its schoolchildren to speak English. In trying to achieve this objective, however, it has faced a very acute resource constraint: There just aren't enough qualified teachers of English working in Uruguayan schools.
What to do?
How do you strike a balance between the immediate needs of students *right now* and an education system's requirements to train teachers to help meet such needs over the long term?
The traditional approach to dealing with such a challenge in many places has been to focus primarily on pre-service training, gradually introducing new teachers into classrooms over many years who have prepared to teach the subject through dedicated courses of study at teacher training colleges, together with occasional in-service professional development activities for existing teachers (normally during holiday breaks). In Uruguay, it was recognized that the gap between the abilities and capacities of many teachers to teach English, and student needs to learn English (which became compulsory in 2008) was so huge in many parts of the country that they needed to do things differently than they had done in the past. Instead of having teachers learn English separately, might it be possible to have them learn alongside their students, in their own classrooms?
As it happens, almost a decade ago Uruguay began its ambitious and innovative Plan Ceibal, which (among other things, and as profiled in a number of previousposts on the EduTechblog) made this small South American nation the first country to connect all of its schools to the Internet and provide all primary school children with a free laptop.
Given the technical infrastructure and know-how that was developed under Plan Ceibal, Uruguayan policymakers asked themselves:
Now that all of the schools are connected to the Internet,
and all students have their own laptops,
might it be possible to offer high quality
English language instruction live over the Internet,
connecting to teachers many miles away from the schools?
The answer to this question, it would appear, is 'yes'. Working out of its remote teaching center in Buenos Aires, its global digital learning hub in the neighboring country of Argentina, the British Council is beaming out English lessons to children in hundreds of individual classrooms across Uruguay, complementing and supporting the work of local teachers in these same classrooms. This is not a 1-to-many broadcast of the sort commonly done in many countries through the use of broadcast television, but rather connects individual classrooms in Uruguay with individual teachers sitting in other places. Some of these English teachers are based in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, many others next door in Argentina, and still others much further afield -- including halfway around the world in the Philippines and the UK! Along the way, the capacity of local teachers, who continue to lead English classes on their own other days of the week, is developed, through their interactions with and observations of the remote teachers.
Over the past two decades, I've had the good fortune to visit hundreds and hundreds of schools across all six continents to learn about how they are using new technologies -- and hope to use them in the future. (Maybe some day I'll visit the Antarctic school that was connected to the Internet by Chile's pioneering Enlaces program and I'll be able to claim I've done this on *all* continents!)
From Korea to Costa Rica, Sri Lanka to Syria, Lesotho to Laos, Papua New Guinea to Puerto Rico: School visits in over 50 countries have run the gamut, from observing the shared use of quite old graphing calculators and lectures at the blackboard describing how to navigate Microsoft Windows (even though there was a nary a PC to be found in the building) to marvelling at technology-rich classrooms filled students and teachers doing things with hardware and software that I couldn't have dreamed of doing when I was a student myself, many years ago.
I have visited schools in prosperous countries in peacetime and in very poor countries emerging from conflict (and in some cases, still technically at war). I learned firsthand about technology use in schools in Iceland when that country was labelled the world's 'most developed' and in schools in Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, after that country suffered its devastating earthquake.
In pretty much all cases and contexts, investments in 'technology' were meant to be deliberately forward-looking (if not always necessarily that 'strategic' or well-planned), to some extent symbols (often explicit ones) of progress and optimism about the future, no matter the education system, from the most 'high performing' to the most dysfunctional.
Because I've had lots of comparative experiences visiting schools in 'other places' around the world, I am sometimes asked to provide an 'international perspective' on what is happening within a set of schools in a given country, part of a larger effort to benchmark what is being done and planned against norms in other countries. It can be a pretty cool gig at times (although the travel can be rather punishing). I am always learning, and the dynamism and determination of students, teachers, principals and education officials whom I observe and chat with quite often leaves me inspired and (re-)energized.
Since I have been doing this for so long, I sometimes help 'train' people (at ministries of education, at NGOs) who are assuming leadership positions in educational technology initiatives on how to develop their own "carpenter's eye" -- the ability to make quick assessments and judgments about what they are seeing in ways those less experienced in the field may struggle to do.
What's a 'carpenter's eye'?
A carpenter can often quickly judge whether an angle is truly 90 degrees, or that a wrong tool was used for a particular job, or make educated guesses about why one material was employed instead of another, or that something is destined to break. Such judgments may not always be accurate, and may be informed by various biases, but they are often qualitatively different than those of people less skilled and experienced with woodworking, who may not notice such things -- and who in fact may not care about them, nor understand why they might be important.
In my personal experience working with new technologies in the education sector, many of these folks have come from 'technical backgrounds' and typically direct their gaze toward, and ask the majority of their questions about, the technology itself. Often times the end goal of such investigations is meant to build an accurate inventory the equipment that is available in a school, rather to trying to learn about how the equipment itself is being used (and not used), why this might be the case, and how people feel about this. Fair enough: We all have different bosses, different ideas about what is important, and different incentives for doing whatever it is we may do. I don't mean to deny the importance of surveying what technologies are currently available in schools. But in my experience, visiting a school to learn about the technology it has and only focusing on that technology (what processor a device has, which operating system it runs, how much memory is available) represents a real lost opportunity to learn about and gain insight into many more things at the same time.
In case it might be of use to anyone else, I have assembled a quick list of some of the things that I often ask about and consider, usually automatically and unconsciously, when I visit a school to learn about how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are being used (and not used) for a variety of purposes. It's by no means comprehensive, and of course every context is different, but I find that these are often the types of things that I ask about and look for (in addition, of course, to the more general educational and demographic stuff that would be common areas of inquiry related to most school visits, and the hyper-specific stuff that might be the reason I am visiting one school in particular).
I have cobbled this list together from a much larger, slightly unruly 'master' list of questions that I maintain, which draws on notes and emails I have shared with people over almost two decades of school visits, working with hundreds of people, many of whom had little prior experience in visiting schools to assess what was happening with technology. Sometimes -- if not often -- sharing these sorts of questions is meant as much to spark discussion and debate within a team about what might be important (and what isn't so important), and how to go about finding this out, as it is to suggest actual questions that should be posed. Every context is different.
Over the past 15 years, tremendous strides have been made in providing computing equipment and Internet access to schools around the world. Despite this, however, many teachers and students – especially those in rural communities in middle and low-income countries (and occasionally in OECD countries as well) remain largely un-connected.
In response, and as a (presumably, or at least hopefully) temporary stop-gap measure, scores of countries have piloted and championed the use of ‘mobile internet computing facilities’ of various sorts as a way to provide access for learners in remote communities to digital teaching and learning resources through the use of things like ‘internet buses’. For some students, ‘mobile learning’ takes place not with the aid of a smart phone, but rather through monthly visits of Internet-connected buses filled with computers. From Big Blue in Zimbabwe to the Google Internet Bus in India to similar sorts of efforts in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Mauritius, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, Mexico and China, technology-rich portable classrooms on wheels of various sorts are in use – and many more are being considered and planned.
Most efforts of these sorts seem to have been conceptualized and implemented in a vacuum, not informed by related experiences in other places. Even where such efforts help meet objectives that are (if we are honest) more related to politics and public relations than they are to learning, what guidance should the people in charge of such efforts consider in order to get the most out of related investments?
Might there be some related lessons and insights drawn from experience in operating mobile computing learning classrooms that can inform ongoing investments in other areas (school transportation, distance learning, school computer labs, rural Internet access)?
Over the past dozen years or so, I have seen and/or heard dozens (probably hundreds) of education project proposals that have sought in some way to include the use of text messages. Whether to send reminders to teachers about what they are meant to teach on a given topic, provide students with a 'learning fact of the day', disseminate exam results, inform parents of student absences, or make available simple SMS quizzes for language learners, many of these proposals have shared a common approach to financing one type of related expense.
"We'll ask the mobile phone company to give us lots of text messages for free. Since we are an education project, we are sure that they will do this." ("By the way," some of these project proponents subsequently asked me, "do you know anyone at the mobile provider we can talk to make this happen?")
Only in very rare cases does this approach to funding seem to work, however. When I explain this to people, noting that phone companies typically don't give away airtime for free and then ask, 'what makes you think they will do so for text messages?', most folks tend to explore a wider variety of potential financing options. (A few clever people will note that text messages don't really costmobile providersanything to send; this may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that just because something costs very little, or even nothing at all, doesn't mean that someone is willing to give it away for free.) Most providers (and many third-parties) offer bulk ('high volume') SMS rates that can dramatically lessen the costs incurred when sending out thousands of emails, but in my experience those costs are very rarely waived entirely by mobile providers as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. (You can always try, though!)
Whether it is the sender or the mobile provider that ends up covering the cost of sending a text message, pretty much all of the education-related project proposals insist that the cost to the beneficiary (a teacher, a student, a parent) should be *zero*.
The cost of receiving text messages in many countries is already zero, of course, and sending SMS is typically quite cheap as well. When it comes to Internet access, however, standard data rates and packages in most of the world can be quite expensive -- prohibitively so for people with low incomes. Paying so that you can receive information via text message on your mobile phone is one thing -- paying to access the Internet using your phone (or other device), can be another matter entirely.
Recognizing this, for a few years there has been a movement to make certain types of educational content available for use by people on mobile networks without incurring any costs related to data transfer. When it comes to education, the Wikipedia Foundation famously pioneered this sort of thing by offering a way for people to receive information from Wikipedia via a free text message. Free text messages: Sounds great, you might say, but there's something that would be even better: free access to educational content directly on the Internet itself – even where such content is already available for ‘free’ on the Internet, users often have to pay their mobile or Internet provider in order to be able to download the content!
Networked devices of various sorts (phones, tablets) are increasingly cheap, and powerful, and in the hands of more and more teachers and students. Improvements in connectivity however -- more bandwidth, greater reliability, lower costs -- are not happening anywhere near as quickly. Wouldn't it be great if people could use these devices to get access to the wealth of educational resources on the Internet (many of which are provided for free) and not have to pay for the bandwidth that would enable this?
As it turns out, this has actually been happening in some places around the world, a development that has been greeted by different people in different ways -- with delight, with debate, and, in some quarters: with disdain.
Not many educational policymakers have entered into related debates, however, perhaps because they are scared away by some of the language and technical focus that characterize discussions around so-called ‘net neutrality’ issues. In fact, in my experience, few education policymakers are even aware of such discussions, nor of why they should care about so-called 'zero-rating', and its potential relevance to, and application in, education.
Mobile Learning Week 2016 begins on Monday, March 7 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The fifth such annual international gathering, #MLW2016 will feature a great lineup of speakers who will share information and perspectives on the use of 'mobile technologies' in education around the world, with specific attention to contexts, initiatives, perspectives and innovations in middle- and low-income countries. The program of the event itself looks to be great, with a mixture of workshops, a policy forum (together with the ITU) and a two-day symposium, all kicked off by a special online 'debate' at 6pm Paris time organized by the folks at Education Fast Forward ("Innovation & Quality: Two sides of the same coin?"). I expect the real attraction of the event for many won't be found on the official program itself. Rather, it will be the opportunities to meet like-minded folks from around the world who are asking lots of useful questions and doing cool stuff 'on-the-ground'. A lot of this stuff is largely under the radar of the press and blogosphere, which directs most of its attention to what's happening in the 'developed' countries of Europe and North America and so is often not clued into some of the fascinating 'innovations at the edges' that are emerging.
Mobile Learning Week is in many ways a companion event to the annual meeting of the mEducation Alliance, the USAID-led initiative which includes many of the same international institutions as sponsors and participants. The mEducation Alliance has also been bringing together people to talk about what is happening in the 'mobile learning' space in so-called 'developing countries' for five years. As someone who has worked in this area for some time, it is clear that we all really live in 'developing countries' when it comes to 'the use of small mobile devices in education', but there have been some notable changes in the nature of related discussions over the past half-decade. In case anyone might care to listen, here are a few of them that I've observed:
Yesterday the World Bank hosted a great discussion related to strategies for tackling the high cost and low availability of textbooks, with a specific focus on needs and contexts across Sub-Saharan Aftrica.
As a complement to yesterday's discussions, a number of posts related to the use of digital teaching and learning materials that have appeared on the World Bank's EduTech blog have been collected here, to make them easier to find, and in case making them available in this way can help in a small way to help enrich any related conversations.
(Please note that additional links will be added to this page over time as relevant related posts appear on the blog.)
When the Russian Empress Catherine the Great visited Crimea in the late 18th century, the nobleman Grigory Potemkin is meant to have had fake village facades erected along her travel route, as well as to have spruced up some of the existing visible buildings (and people), so that she would be fooled into thinking that things were better than they really were. While historians have expressed considerable doubt about whether this actually occurred (indeed, many place it in the category of persistent "cultural myth"), the concept of a Potemkin Village, where things are tarted up so that occasional visitors get a false sense of reality, is not too difficult to understand.
Over the years I have visited hundreds and hundreds of schools in scores of countries to get a sense how they are using (and not using) technology. Whether in rural Eritrea or highly developed, urban Singapore, as an outsider I am always conscious of the fact that there is an element of 'show' to what I am seeing -- or at least that there might be. The act of observing can often change what is being observed (social scientists refer to this as the Hawthorne effect). As an employee of the World Bank, I know that government officials who arrange and accompany me on school visits often want to showcase what 'works', and what is 'best practice'. This is especially the case where World Bank (or other external) funding has been involved, as people are eager to show that related monies have been well spent.
This is not always the case, of course. I was once lucky enough to visit a school in Latin America for children with special educational needs in a country that was buying *lots* of technology for use by teachers and students. We arranged to meet the relevant government officials at the school early in the morning so that they could act as our guides. However, it turned out that there were actually two schools for special needs students located on the same street in different parts of the city -- and we had gone to the wrong one. After waiting for a while in the office of the headmistress (who was clearly surprised that we were there), it was decided that we should just begin the tour and start talking to people. A few hours later, after the national educational officials had finally figured out where we were, we were picked up and driven to the 'correct' school. It will probably come as little surprise that our experiences in both places were quite different. Chats with teachers, administrators and parents at the first school contrasted rather markedly with the quite sunny picture presented to us at the second 'showcase' school. This is not to say that we couldn't learn anything from the showcase school, however, just that we learned different things -- and perhaps had to work a bit harder to do so.
Testing: For better and/or for worse, many education systems are built around it (although some perhaps not as much as others). In numerous countries, a long-standing joke asks whether 'MOE' stands for 'Ministry of Education', or 'Ministry of Examination'? (This joke is not meant to be funny, of course.)
'Testing' is a source of and trigger for controversies of all different sorts, in different places around the world. The word 'standardized' is considered negative by many people when it is used to modify 'testing', but it is perhaps worth noting that a lack of 'standardized' tests can have important implications for equity. Within the U.S., the Obama administration recently declared that students should spend no more than 2% of classroom instruction time taking tests. However one feels about the wisdom of setting such hard targets (one could argue, for instance, that it's not 'testing' per se that's the problem, to the extent that it is indeed a problem, but rather 'bad testing') and the various types of time accounting shenanigans that might predictably emerge so that the letter but not the spirit of such declarations are met (a school could be creative about what it feels constitutes a 'test' or 'instruction time', for example), there is no denying the centrality of testing to approaches to education in schools around the world.
'Testing' means different things to different people. There are important distinctions between assessments that are formative (i.e. low stakes means to provide feedback to teachers and students on how much students are learning, as a way to identify strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly) and those that are summative (e.g. high stakes final exams).
The point here is not to get into a debate about testing, as illuminating and energetic (or frustrating and political) as such a debate might be. Rather, it is to shine a light on some related things happening at the frontier of activities and experiences in this area that are comparatively little known in most of the world but which may be increasingly relevant to many education systems in the coming years.
The nature of tests and testing is changing, enabled in large part by new technologies. (Side note: One way to predict where there are going to be large upcoming public sector procurement activities to provide computing equipment and connectivity to schools is to identify places where big reforms around standardized testing are underway.) While there continues to be growing interest (and hype, and discussion, and confusion) surrounding the potential for technology to enable more 'personalized learning', less remarked on in many quarters is the potential rise in more personalized testing.
The science fiction author William Gibson has famously observed that, The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. When it comes to educational technology use around the world, there are lots of interesting 'innovations at the edges' that are happening far away from the spots where one might reflexively look (like Seoul, Silicon Valley or Shanghai, to cite just a few examples that begin with the letter 'S') to learn practical lessons about what might be coming next, and how this may come to pass.
When it comes to testing, one such place is ... Georgia. This is not the Georgia in the southern United States (capital = Atlanta, where people play football while wearing helmets), but rather the small, mountainous country that borders the Black Sea which emerged as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union (capital = Tbilisi, where people play football with their feet).
Georgia is the first country in the world to utilize computer adaptive testing for all of its school leaving examinations.
What does this mean,
what does it look like in practice,
what is there to learn from this experience,
and why should we care?
This week over a million students around the world will participate in the Hour of Code, an annual event designed to excite interest in computer science and computer programming. This reflects a growing interest in some quarters to promote efforts within schools to broaden awareness of what it means to 'code' (i.e. write a set of step-by-step directions that instruct computers to do something) and to help students develop related skills.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many leadingtechnologyfirms have been keen proponents and supporters of this educational coding 'movement'. While such support has been particularly pronounced and high profile in the United States -- many of the prominentorganizations have close ties to and/or roots in Silicon Valley -- this is long past being only a North American phenomenon.
Citing the increasing importance of coding skills, and IT jobs more broadly, to their national economies, policymakers in many countries are considering national coding education efforts of various sorts – and a few education systems have already begun to implement related initiatives. From Trinidad and Tobago to Indonesia to Nigeria, 'coding' is being introduced into classrooms and curricula around the world in various ways, both informally and (increasingly) formally as well, for better and/or for worse (depending on your perspective, and the particular nature or rigor of the specific initiatives).
This phenomenon is notably observable across Europe, where, rather famously (at least within the communities of people who care about and pay attention to such things), Estonia and the United Kingdom have introduced coding curricula for students beginning in early primary grades (the UK has actually made this mandatory – as has Slovakia, for what that’s worth). Each year in October, CodeWeek.eu serves as a continental focal point and showcase for many of these sorts of national and regional efforts. A recent report from the European Schoolnet (Computer programming and coding - Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe [pdf]) features results from a survey of 21 ministries of education about their current coding-related initiatives and plans for the future. To date, 16 European countries have integrated coding into their curricula at some level (with Finland and the Flemish part of Belgium expected to do so in 2016). While the focus of most of these countries has been at the upper secondary level, coding is increasingly to be found (or soon to be found) at the primary level at a majority of these countries as well. The report highlights a number of important related pedagogical questions that are emerging out of European experience:
How to design effectively the learning processes and outcomes involving coding?
Which concrete activities (and programming languages) are most appropriate for different students, according to their age, interests and capacities?
What are the particular merits (and limits) of adopting a cross-curricular approach to teaching coding or a discrete computer science subject?
How to refine assessment, in particular where coding is integrated in a cross-curricular approach in other subjects?
It also highlights many challenges related to training and support for teachers. While many of the startups developing the tools and services that make the coding movement possible are in the United States, Europe is in many the ways at the center of actual related activities in schools.
“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.
I expect that few people would argue that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’ (and to develop some related skills) is a bad thing. That said:
Should *all* students learn how to code? All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer. All? Absolutely! others respond.
I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.
For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives:
(In my experience, this query may be a result of an evaluation that showed little or no 'impact of technology on student learning’, despite massive amounts of money that have been invested … or it may simply come about because a lot of initiatives are coming to an end and the groups involved in them are looking for stuff to do. There are other impetuses as well, but I am regularly reminded that the motivations which animate this sort of question can vary quite a bit!)
In such instances, I usually respond by first congratulating them on all of these great accomplishments. A lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people was needed to make these things happen, and no doubt lots of difficult challenges popped up along the way.
As difficult (and expensive) as it may have been to achieve all of these things, in many ways they represent just table settings, and not the main course. In other words (and to adopt another metaphor, in case you didn't like that last one), they are some of the key raw materials that can be used to help do something purposeful with technology to supports learning that has real, demonstrable impact.
It's about the content, not the container, after all. (That will be the last metaphor for a while, I promise.) As devices proliferate, and as better and more widespread connectivity enables connections to networks from different places using a variety of different devices, the value will decreasingly be in the devices themselves, but rather in the educational content they enable learners and teachers to access (and in the connections to communities of other people as well).
OK, they counter, if the value is indeed in the content, and not the container ... where do we get this content?
The textbooks we use do not have straightforward digital equivalents or complements.
We really haven't budgeted for any digital learning content.
We spent almost all of our money on hardware (and a little on related training).
We know that there is a lot of 'free' content available on the Internet that would be useful to teachers and students.